Clear The Decks For Action


Don't miss the slide show at the end of this post

I’m a big time fan of the Aubrey/Maturin series about the days of sailing warships. As often mentioned in these books, the best captains, the ones that brought their ships home in one piece and vanquished their foes at sea, were holy terrors for clear decks. Times have changed but the sea has not and stuff on deck still has the potential to cause trouble offshore, even if you won’t be faced with a fleet action.

Over the more than 40 years that I have been going offshore in sailboats I have noticed a disturbing trend toward ever more clutter on deck: Huge RIB dinghies in davits, rafts of poorly secured solar cells, portable generators, windsurfers, bicycles, television dishes; there seems to be no end to the stuff that festoons cruising boats today.

OK For Inshore

I guess there is no real problem with all this clutter for boats that will be spending their time inshore in sheltered waters, although, on a personal basis, I would still want a clear and tidy decks.

But Not Offshore

But offshore this stuff has the potential to cause real harm when the weather gets nasty. Not only do these obstructions make it difficult and dangerous to move around on deck, they also increase the chances that you will have to do exactly that when the lashings holding all the deck stuff loosen, as they inevitably will in a gale.

Clear Decks Require Sacrifices

When getting soaked in a chop while putt-putting along in our soft inflatable tender we often envy those whizzing past us in big RIBs. And a big bank of solar cells would be really nice. But at the end of the day, when considering such things, clear decks win out for us.

Pelerin_2And/Or Planning

I’m not saying that an offshore boat should have neither solar cells or RIBs; plenty of sailors we respect have both. But I am saying that we voyagers need to limit the stuff we keep on deck and mount and lash the stuff we do have in a seamanlike way, not just tie it on and hope for the best.

For example, the solar cells and wind generator mounted on the massive welded arch on Colin’s Ovni, pictured above, are not going to go anywhere, no matter the weather.

Here is a slide show of some boats with cluttered decks and the problems that I foresee, should they go offshore.

You can click on the slide show to enlarge it so you can really see the details. Use the buttons at the bottom to move through the show (it does not advance automatically).

Slideshow requires a reasonably up to date copy of the Adobe Flash plug-in or iPhone/iPad or Android and that java script be enabled.

What do you think about clutter on deck? Leave a comment.

{ 22 comments… add one }

  • Willem February 25, 2011, 11:55 pm

    Good points, all. I keep my deck clean, and I pay the price of having my folding bicycle, bbq, big fenders, and inflatable below decks. The only thing that frustrates me is the lack of a decent, rowable dinghy. I used to have a wonderful 10′ Trinka, lashed to the deck, but went back to a very simple Avon inflatable for two reasons: I don’t like such a big object on the foredeck, and with a bit of wind I found it hard to move it around, despite the fact that I could easily lift it with the halyard. I am a singlehander, so storage below deck is not an issue, but even there I want the boat to be shipshape. Thus, I have the bicycle, etc. tied down securely. If ever you come across an inflatable Trinka, I’d be interested. Thanks for the great advice!

  • Ben February 26, 2011, 12:36 am

    I have an inflatable Tinker Traveler, rows pretty well, but I still prefer the hard dink. Excellent article and good advice, though I do like my staysail booms, as long as they have separate sheets port and stb to control them.

  • Matt Marsh February 26, 2011, 10:36 am

    Regarding fully enclosed cockpits: I’ve never quite understood this one. Surely, looking at the moving world through distorted “clear” plastic / isinglass can’t be good for seasickness, or for situational awareness. A bimini, sure. A dodger, sure. But if you need side enclosures, it’s time to trade the aft-cockpit sailboat in for something with a solid pilot house.

    People will instinctively think that anything that is placed where you might want to grab on is a hand-hold. Thin-walled 1″ tubes supporting a bimini look like hand-holds, but they aren’t; they’ll buckle if you put your weight on them. This strikes me as a rather dangerous design flaw. You should not have to tell crew “don’t grab the bimini”, it should either be strong enough or not be there at all.

    Regarding heavy RIBs on transom davits- not only are they at increased risk of being damaged in a storm, but hanging several hundred kilograms so far aft of the centre of gravity isn’t doing anything nice for the moment of inertia tensor. Don’t be surprised if the mother ship’s pitching motion suffers as a result.

    • Ernie February 28, 2011, 10:13 am

      As a canvas designer…sure we could build 1.5″ framework that could support body weight…talk about the price and people balk . They’ll go for the cheap version 8 out of 10 times…
      Having made 2 Transats…even the 1.5″ frames should come down for the short time of crossing.
      Great article John. Thanks for insight and the pictures.

      • John March 6, 2011, 2:58 pm

        Hi Ernie,

        That’s interesting that you could build an enclosure with 1.5″ pipe. A much better option I think. In fact our hard dodger and hard bimini are on 1.5″ pipe and neither has ever shown any signs of failure in winds up to 70 knots. Also, I think part of the key is not having any side or back curtains for the wind to push on.

        I suspect a lot of enclosed cockpits would be fine offshore if the owners would remove the side curtains when the weather got nasty. However, human nature being what it is, I suspect that most owners of fully enclosed cockpits do the exact opposite when it blows.

  • David Nutt February 26, 2011, 2:33 pm

    We carry a 13′ Whitehall dinghy on our fordeck and an 11′ RIB athwartships just forward of the cabin house. I agree that it is a lot of gear, at times in the way, on the decks. We’ve seen plenty of water across the decks but never in a life threatening way. As the passages are so short compared to the time at anchor we feel the risk is worth it. We often use both boats simultaneously or take the RIB off for diving and use the Whitehall for short hauls and just plain exercise. Neither wrong nor right but this has worked for us on Danza during a 42,000 mile circumnavigation and a summer in Greenland.

    • John February 26, 2011, 5:27 pm

      Hi David,

      Makes a lot of sense and we envy you your beautiful Whitehall pulling boat. I also think that it is probably perfectly seamanlike for you, given Danza’s size (62-feet?) and deck configuration. What really scares me is when I see a 15-foot RIB weighing several hundred pounds taking up the entire foredeck of a 35-boat.

  • Willem February 26, 2011, 2:42 pm


    Indeed, a lot of gear, but great once at anchor. How long is your boat? Mine is 39′ and is pointed at both ends (Corbin). That pretty much takes care of davits. Also, I simply don’t want the hassle of an outboard, and row most of the time. I tried a kayak, but find it nerve-wracking to get into from a fairly high freeboard. I really like the Portland Pudgy, but would not store it right-side up, as it would be even more vulnerable. I have also been looking at the Portabotes and would like to try one, just to feel how it works. That I could store flat on the foredeck. I share the misgivings about inflatable liferafts, and have my Avon half-inflated below, and I carry a really good immersion/survival suit. The downside is that once I have that on, I am as nimble as a concrete mixer with arthritis. I would be grateful for experiences with Portabotes, and what lengths people have used.

  • Jean-François Eeman February 26, 2011, 5:02 pm

    Great article.
    John, we at Boréal share your philosophy !
    The article might sound “radical” but it is not !
    It should be handed to some boats leaving for long passages.

  • Colin Speedie February 26, 2011, 5:18 pm

    Great post, John.

    I totally agree with the need to keep the decks clean and clear, and as always the wealth of experience out there has raised all of the reasons why – and more.

    Best wishes


  • Sid February 26, 2011, 6:23 pm


    An excellent piece. I could not agree more. I won the argument with my mate over fuel jugs on deck but had to give in on the RIB on the foredeck rather than an inflatable on the cabin top.

  • Hans Jakob Valderhaug February 27, 2011, 9:24 am

    Regarding dinghy:
    We have had our UK made Seahopper folding dinghy for 12 years, and it has served us superbly. Stows flat on the cabin top of our 31′ Hallberg Rassy Monsun when sailing inshore, tied to strongholds belowdecks in the forepeak when offshore. Rows well, no need for outboard. Ours is the plywood version, needs varnishing every now and then. There is now also a fibreglass version.

    • John March 6, 2011, 2:47 pm

      Hi Hans;

      These dinghies really are intriguing. Based on your comment, I spent a half hour measuring places on deck for various different boats, since we have always wanted a sailing dinghy that rows well along on our cruises. The idea of being able to have it on deck when coastal cruising and then move it below for offshore work, like you do, is very attractive.

      Have you tried sailing any of these boats? And if so, how well did they sail?

      • Hans Jakob Valderhaug March 6, 2011, 4:15 pm

        Hi John, No, we have never tried our dinghy with the sailing rig, but I understand it behaves much like the Mirror dinghy.

  • Nick Kats March 2, 2011, 4:29 pm

    Really good John, especially with those pics of boats awash in rubbish on deck & around the cockpit.

    Have a 8′ hard dinghy lashed on the cabin top, over the skylight, to very strong handholds, & a Tinker Traveler inflatable folded & secured out of the way between the front of the cabin & the mainmast.

    Have an absolute fetish about clear decks, & keeping topsides clear.

    It really is your comment on the Aubrey/Maturin series that brings me in here. I was mad about this series – took reading the entire series about 5 times (yes, five) to get this behind me. Master & Commander, Nutmeg of Consolation, Desolation Island, and Thirteen Gun Salute are among my favourites. Perhaps the one most shocking episode is the destruction of the Wazaamzheit (sp?), the Dutch warship, in the South Atlantic.

    I also have the complete set of Admiral Mahan’s works here, inherited from my father, but lost steam half way thru the biography of Nelson. It just is not as good.

    • John March 6, 2011, 2:52 pm

      Hi Nick,

      Thanks for the kind comments about the post. I’m with you on Aubrey/Maturin, although only up to my second read through.

  • Ben Smith March 30, 2013, 4:45 pm

    Hi John,

    I fully agree with all you said, I was raised as a fisherman (commercial) and a sailor and I have a moto which is as follows: a clean boat is a happy boat, a happy boat is a safe boat and a safe boat is all that matters..

    Basically translates to keep the decks clear and your load well secured and you “should” be o.k. (if you have a bit of common, no Sea sense that is)..

    Oh, and great posts, keep them comming.

    Best regards

    • John March 31, 2013, 8:40 am

      Hi Ben,

      Thanks very much for the kind comment. If we can please a commercial fisher, well, that’s very reassuring.

  • Marc Dacey March 31, 2013, 10:46 am

    After having had a davit fail with only an unloaded RIB on it in mere five-foot waves in Lake Ontario, we reviewed every aspect of our tender needs…and decided to ditch the davits. The half-inch steel pads that supported them now have a small crane on one side and will have a wind generator on the other. Throw in a windvane on the centerline, and there’s still a lot of gear on the stern, but it not heavy and it is not on deck.

    Our decks are cambered to shed water into scuppers. The design does not allow a lot of deck clutter. Whisker/spinnaker poles are secured vertically. The tender is no longer a Zodiac C310 RIB, as this was awkward to deploy even from the foredeck in any kind of a wind, and it spoiled the view and made foredeck work problematic as it tended to foul the staysail.

    Rather, we went with a 10 foot rowing/motoring Portabote, which can be lashed to the rails, and a 10-foot nesting dinghy capable of motoring/sailing/rowing, which covers the foredeck workshop hatch (we are creating access through the salon’s forward bulkhead anyway). We feel that the disadvantage of having to assemble the tenders is more than compensated by a) the clear decks which aren’t cluttered by either “form factor”, and b) the fact that having TWO tenders simplifies trips to shore and need not leave any one of our crew of three “stuck aboard”.

    We think of the nesting dinghy as the people mover and the Portabote as the “cargo dink”, because the latter is pretty rugged and you can lower bikes and toolboxes and fuel jugs into it without fear of making a hole.

    Having been warned by RIB fans that we are crazy and that open boats are unworkable, we remain open to the possibility that we may need to modify our views, but it’s pretty easy to find a RIB. We may try to incorporate the various foam and/or inflatable aftermarket “gunwhale collars” that give extra buoyancy and, arguably, stability to folders like the Portabote. Those are also items that pack away well, unlike a 12 foot 55 kilo RIB, which, deflated to reduce height, takes longer to make ready than the 30 kilo Portabote or the four-connector, 40 kilo fibreglass nesting dinghy. It’s actually nice for the sailboat to have its own sailboat, too, for exploring, or even as a potential “escape pod”.

    Regarding inflatables and RIBs: We like them and understand why they’ve become the cruiser’s choice. They have their costs, however, in space and handling requirements, that we found less appealing. We found when researching these sort of decisions, that it’s too easy to follow the herd thinking, although I will admit sometimes the herd has to be right, or it wouldn’t be a herd!

  • Justin Bonar March 9, 2014, 5:45 pm

    I have a new 2014 Jeanneau 53. One of the reasons I selected this vessel is the relatively flush deck, absent hard edges and protrusions that might be damaged or torn off by green water. I need to select a dinghy and I am adamant not to have enormous stern davits. There are 12 feet of clear deck forward of the mast to the aft edge of the hatch to the large sail locker, 17 feet to the windlass, almost 20 to the bow, so there is plenty of space potentially to stow a 8′-11′ dinghy. However, I’m wary of Lin and Larry Pardey’s caution and other evidence, for example, in Adlard Coles Heavy Weather Sailing, about deck mounted life rafts, dinghies and other gear being washed away and/or doing serious damage to the deck, particularly if they are secured too well to fittings that rip out! With a roll-up, I could probably store it in the forward sail locker or down below via the companionway. But a RIB with a hard bottom is a very attractive option, just that it would have to go on deck when not being towed. One other option would be to install the swing-up davits on the transom. Thoughts?

    • John March 12, 2014, 6:55 pm

      Hi Justin,

      I would stick with my original recommendation in the post above: no dinghy on deck at sea, and that goes double for a dinghy forward of the mast. As you note in your list of those who won’t have dinghies forward, the more experienced the offshore sailor, the less clutter you will find on deck.

  • Dan September 12, 2014, 1:08 am

    Been saying this for years.Glad someone finally wrote a great a presentation of the common problems..


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